A Deadly Misunderstanding: “My Apology” - Bridges To Common Ground

Chapter 8

Terror Victims Find Justice

During the Reagan years, Colonel Qaddafi was the ultimate bad actor on the global scene. To the West of the 1980s and early 1990s, he was Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden wrapped into a single package.

In December 1988, Pan Am flight 103 was downed over Lockerbie, Scotland. Its wreckage crashed into the little town of Sherwood Crescent, killing eleven townspeople in addition to the 259 victims on the plane itself, 189 of whom were Americans. It was the worst act of terrorism against U.S. civilians in history and would remain so until the disastrous attacks of September 11, 2001. The investigation (the largest in Scotland’s history) soon found evidence of a bomb planted aboard the airliner, and two members of Libyan intelligence were charged with planting the device.

But despite world outcry, Qaddafi refused to extradite the two men. As a result, Libya endured harsh economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation throughout most of the 1990s.

This would be the most difficult trip to pull off of any we’d ever taken, in a strictly logistic sense. It would also be the most dangerous. Because strict U.S. sanctions were in place, we couldn’t legally travel to Libya using U.S. passports. We couldn’t secure visas or plane tickets for Libya. And if we somehow managed to get into the country, we would be constrained by U.S. law from spending any currency. Buying a slice of bread or a taxi ride would be a criminal act.

If we were coming only with Benin’s foreign minister, then it would be Dr. Omar al-Montasser, Libya’s foreign minister, who would meet with us, and not the colonel himself. It was a bad footing to start on, but at least we were seeing someone very highly placed in the colonel’s inner circle.

The meeting in Libya began on a difficult note. Dr. al-Montasser ignored Rev. Zannou and raged at the two of us Americans. He said he knew we were there to heckle him about the Lockerbie suspects and he wasn’t interested in talking about it. We told him that was not our intention. Yes it was, he insisted, and he launched into another tirade.

“Our entire objective here is friendship. That’s all. We’re here to pursue a new relationship, based on the teachings of Isa—”That was it. I might as well have tossed a stick of dynamite into his lap. Dr. al-Montasser leapt to his feet and started screaming at us.

“What do you think, we’re all Christians here?! What kind of American arrogance do you think—”“I’m sorry if I’ve offended you,” I interjected, “but Christianity doesn’t have one-hundred percent ownership of Jesus—I was referring to Isa al-Masih, the Isa of the Qur’an.”“The Qur’an?” he yelled at me. “What do you Christian Americans know of the Qur’an?”

“Surely not all I should,” I said, doing my best to convey a calm I did not feel. “But I am striving to learn more of your holy book. I know that sura 60:7, for example, says, ‘Allah will put friendship between you and those who have been your enemies. Allah is mighty, forgiving and merciful.’ And sura 42:40 tells us, ‘Whoever forgives and amends, he shall have his reward from Allah.’

Dr. al-Montasser turned red and a vein stood out on his neck; I was sure he would either have a stroke or strangle me with his bare hands, whichever came first. “So,” he screamed into my face, “you come to ‘forgive’ us? Is that your position? You have the audacity to come here and on our own soil—”“No,” I interjected, “not to offer our forgiveness—to ask you for yours.”

The place fell as silent as a tomb. Al-Montasser stared at me. He opened his mouth, then slowly closed it again without making a sound. I was sure that if I said another word, he would explode—but I had to go on.

“What I’m saying is, in the spirit of these and other suras of the Qur’an, and in the spirit of the teachings of Isa, I am asking your forgiveness for our country’s killing of Colonel Qaddafi’s daughter Hanna. The bombing raid that took her life happened during my service in Congress, and I feel complicit in this terrible event. I am so sorry.”

He stared at me mute and gaping. Had he not heard me?“I want to offer my sincere apologies,” I repeated. “And I hope you will convey them to the colonel as well.”When Dr. al-Montasser began speaking again, his tone and demeanor had completely shifted. The manner in which our encounter unfolded from that point on was astonishing to witness. We spoke further about the Qur’an and about Islam, about the teachings of Jesus and the centuries of grave misunderstanding and mistrust between the different cultures of the world. We did not speak of politics or international dealings, not even for a single syllable.

At the end of an hour or so, we knew our audience was drawing to a close. Doug, who had contributed so many inspired comments during the meeting, offered to pray, and unbelievably, Dr. al-Montasser accepted, as if we had been colleagues and prayer partners for years. We stood with clasped hands and prayed.At the end of our audience, as Dr. al-Montasser walked us to the door, he leaned toward me and quietly said, “You will have good news in ten days.”

Ten days later, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, the Lockerbie suspects, were handed over for transport to the Netherlands to stand trial. Court proceedings began in May of the following year and concluded in February 2001 with the conviction of al-Megrahi, who is still serving a life sentence, and the acquittal of Fhimah.After our trip, strange things happened in Libya.

Later that year, Qaddafi pledged Libya’s commitment to help fight al-Qaeda, and offered to voluntarily open his weapons program to international inspections. In fact, Qaddafi changed course rather dramatically, earning a reputation as a moderating figure, African elder statesman, and—of all things—humanitarian who has done much to improve the lives of poverty-stricken sub-Saharan Africans.

On May 15, 2006, the U.S. State Department announced that it would restore full diplomatic relations with Libya.

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